His curve was M.I.A. His fastball was clocked at a mere 78 mph. The opponent was big, bad Crater, owners of one of the most potent batting lineups in 6A baseball.
All Ashland senior pitcher Tommy Hulick could hope to do Thursday was keep the ball down, lean on that tricky change-up and pray that the Grizzlies' defense would make enough plays to keep the game close.
"I went home (Wednesday) night," Hulick said, "and I focused and I visualized what I was going to do."
Then, somehow, he did it.
Hulick tossed a two-hit shutout in his first start of the season, Ashland's defense overcame five errors and Eric Carlson continued his blistering start as the Grizzlies delivered their second shocker in three days by slaying giant Crater 2-0 at North Mountain Park.
Steen Fredrickson's sacrifice fly to deep center scored Bryce Rogan to give the Grizzlies the only run they would need in the first, and Carlson added an RBI double for a little insurance in the third. Both runs came against Crater ace Nolan Bastendorff.
Hulick, thanks to timely play-making by the Ashland defense, made it stand. He escaped a two-on, two-out scare in both the first and the fifth, the latter when Taylor Tibbets' shot to deep center was hauled in by Rogan on a dead sprint.
Then, in the seventh, Ashland's defense made up for its previous mistakes by turning the double-play of the year. With runners at first and second and nobody out, Crater left fielder Joey Caballero, batting ninth in the order, squared up for a sacrifice bunt attempt. Hanging on for dear life, Hulick fell behind 2-1, then 3-1 before working the count full. Meanwhile, Ashland shortstop Aaron Scott spotted Crater's Ty Plankenhorn, at second following his leadoff single, venturing out to a sizable lead. Scott signaled to Ashland catcher Carter Glick, setting the trap. Then, snap: Hulick's payoff pitch zinged past Caballero's bat for strike three ("He missed it — I don't know how," Hulick said) and Glick fired a laser to Scott at second for a scintillating back-pick.
"Most of it was reaction," Glick said. "He was taking a huge lead, even without two strikes. I knew the kid was going to bunt because they needed two runs and I kind of spied him, but (Scott) called it as well."
"I'm still amazed with Carter," Hulick said. "That was so clutch. (Scott) being heads up, and (Glick) being heads up like that — they really saved me."
But there was still work to be done. Crater's Blake Fahndrich, who drew a walk earlier, stood at first and Crater leadoff batter Tyler Aplin came to the plate representing the tying run. Aplin, whose history of torching the Grizzlies includes a grand slam two years ago, quickly fell behind 0-2 before working the count back to 2-2. Hulick then went to the well one last time, scraping the black with an outside fastball that Aplin took for strike three.
"I just knew that he's a really good hitter and I was going to have to pound the outside corner to get him and it all worked out," Hulick said. "I was so relieved. So relieved."
Hulick struck out four and walked three in his first varsity shutout, lowering his ERA to 2.21.
The win was Ashland's fourth in a row since its 0-3 start in Arizona and second straight thriller after Tuesday's dramatic comeback win over Henley. As of Thursday night, Crater (7-2) was ranked No. 2 in the 6A OSAA rankings, and Henley No. 5 in 4A. Ashland was the No. 1-ranked 5A team.
Ashland gave Hulick a lead to work with early on against Bastendorff, a curve specialist who helped the Comets advance to the 6A quarterfinals last spring. Rogan led off the first with a single to center, advanced to second on Max Montgomery's sacrifice bunt and to third on Carlson's single off the pitcher's mound. Down 2-2, Fredrickson then muscled an outside fastball to center, plenty deep enough to plate Rogan and give the Grizzlies the lead for good.
"I just wanted to hit it hard to the outfield," Fredrickson said. "He put it low and it was a good spot. I just put a good swing on it."
Montgomery and Carlson had a hand in Ashland's second run as well. Montgomery doubled to right-center with one out in the third to start the mini rally. Next was Carlson, who entered the game batting .636 then went 2-for-3. He smacked Bastendorff's first offering over Paul Turner's head in center, easily scoring Montgomery.
Against most teams, a 2-0 lead would be less than comfortable. Against the hard-hitting Comets, it seemed downright perilous.
But Hulick continued to navigate the ship through danger, which often included Ashland's own miscues. There was a fumbled pop up in the first, a wild throw in the second, another botched catch in the third.
But in the end, it was Hulick's game.
"We've seen some really hard pitching up to this point and (Hulick's) the first guy that we've seen that's been slower," Crater coach Jay Campbell said. "But that's no excuse. He did a good job mixing it up. We hit some balls well and they just stayed up. It was one of those days."
And for Hulick, one of those days he'll remember for quite a while.
"I knew (Hulick) was ready to go," Ashland coach John Wallace said. "I told him, 'I don't want you going out there trying to strike anybody out. I just want you to get weak contact, mix speeds and hit your spots.' And he did a great job doing that."
Crater 000 000 0 — 0 2 2
Ashland 101 000 x — 2 7 5
Bastendorff, Asher (4), Fox (6) and Aplin; Hulick and Glick. W — Hulick (1-0). L — Bastendorff. 2B — A: Montgomery, Carlson.